Published March 2, 2020
Better Treatments for the Youngest Patients
Inaugural Embrace Kids Foundation Chair in Pediatric Hematology/Oncology blends state-of-the-art treatment with compassionate care for the youngest patients
Renowned pediatric oncologist Peter D. Cole is the inaugural Embrace Kids Foundation Chair in Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, established with a gift from the foundation and an anonymous donor. Cole is also the chief of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, leading the institutions’ efforts to provide state-of-the-art care for children and adolescents with cancer and blood disorders.
Cole credits a mentor, Barton Kamen—the former Cancer Institute Pediatric Hematology/Oncology chief in whose memory the Embrace Kids Foundation established the chair—with helping to shape his perspective on his work. “Bart taught me that we must never think that our job is only to treat diseases,” says Cole. “Our mission is to provide compassionate care to people—people who happen to have serious diseases, who deserve a holistic approach to address the impact of the disease on their lives and the lives of their families. Acknowledging that our current treatment approaches are imperfect, we have the obligation to endeavor to continue our research so that the next generation can experience even better outcomes.”
Cole, a graduate of Weill Cornell College of Medicine, completed his residency training in pediatrics at Mount Sinai Medical Center and his fellowship training in pediatric hematology and oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In addition to helping design and conduct clinical trials for children diagnosed with leukemia or lymphoma, he has also held leadership or advisory roles with organizations around the world, including the Dana Farber Cancer Institute Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Consortium; the Consorcio Latinoamericano de Enfermedades Hemato-Oncológicas Pediátricas; the Indian Pediatric Oncology Group; and the Children’s Oncology Group. Throughout his career, he has partnered with Rutgers Cancer Institute investigators on studies exploring chemotherapy resistance, alternative therapies for children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and improved therapies for adolescents and young adults with relapsed or refractory Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The Embrace Kids Foundation aims to improve the quality of life for families whose children are facing cancer, sickle cell, and other serious health challenges by addressing the spiritual, emotional, and financial needs of patient families in the New Jersey/New York City metropolitan area. “Inspired by the scientific wonder and human compassion exhibited by Dr. Barton Kamen, Embrace Kids Foundation thought it fitting to fund a chair in his memory,” says Glenn Jenkins, executive director of the foundation.
“My vision,” Cole says, “is for us to continue to advance the field through a combination of laboratory and clinical research, making treatments more successful and less toxic for our pediatric patients.”
In the Professor’s Own Words
What avenues of research do you see as most promising?
Precision medicine to personalize treatment. Physicians have always individualized therapy, adjusting treatment for each patient if we don’t see the effects we’re hoping for. Now we’re starting to be able to take advantage of advances in gene sequencing to better understand the unique characteristics of each patient’s cancer, as well as the unique genetic makeup of the normal cells around the cancer. With this information, we are better able to select therapies that have the greatest chance of eradicating the cancer, while minimizing side effects. In coming years, with more new therapies and refinements in how we analyze genetic information, our ability to do this accurately will continue to increase.
Can you tell us about an experience in your work that was especially satisfying?
For the past 23 summers, I’ve volunteered as physician at a camp for children with cancer or blood disorders. Many of the children who attend camp are kids I know from the hospital and took care of when they were at their sickest. It’s gratifying to hang out with them in this very different context, seeing them just being kids, not patients, dunking each other in the pool, doing arts and crafts, and cutting into the ice cream line. This experience recharges me every summer and refuels my optimism.
Do you have a favorite memory of Dr. Kamen?
Bart Kamen was a fabulous mentor and wonderful friend. He shared and nurtured my love for science through many early morning conversations as we worked through biochemical pathways on our lab’s chalkboard. More important, he reminded me constantly that “we don’t treat cancer. We treat people who happen to have cancer.” With that in mind, he always focused on the needs of the whole person as well as their families. Bart wasn’t afraid to reveal his inner child to forge relationships with his patients. My memories are of him speeding into clinic on his Segway, giving the kids rides, and doing magic tricks for them.
In an ideal world, what improvements will have been made in cancer treatment five years from now?
We’re conducting an increasing number of clinical trials now, testing the role of targeted therapies that differ from conventional chemotherapy in that they are even more specific for killing cancer cells. In an ideal world, we will continue to refine these treatments so that patients with cancer can be cured without having to suffer through the acute and chronic side effects of current therapies.
This story is part of Rutgers University Foundation’s Endowed Chairs Impact series. Supporting professorships and research helps spark innovation and creativity here in New Jersey and beyond.